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“It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intender for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing. That is a wise action.” (18.21)
The Igbo believe that their gods are perfectly capable and vengeful gods. Because they also cannot understand the divine completely, they stay out of the way of the gods, for fear of making a mistake. Essentially the villagers do not assume that they know the will of the gods.
“They say that Okoli killed the sacred python,” said one man.
“It is false,” said another. “Okoli told me himself that it was false.”
Okoli was not there to answer. He had fallen ill on the previous night. Before the day was over he was dead. His death showed that the gods were still able to fight their own battles. The clan saw no reason then for molesting the Christians. (18.35-37)
The Igbo people take Okoli’s sudden death to be the vengeful workings of an offended god. To them, Okoli’s death is a sign that their gods can still act. Are the villagers justified in thinking Okoli’s death is a divine sign, or are they just looking for an excuse not to engage in battle against the missionaries?
Whenever Mr. Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Either of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.
“You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits. “We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.”
“There are no other gods,” said Mr. Brown. “Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood – like that one” (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung) “and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.”
“Yes,” said Akunna. “It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.”
“No,” protested Mr. Brown. “The head of my church is God Himself.”
“I know,” said Akunna, “but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.”
“The head of my church in that sense is in England.”
“That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your country is in your country. He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.”
“They have a queen,” said the interpreter on his own account.
“Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help Him because His work is too great for one person.”
“You should not think of Him as a person,” said Mr. Brown. “It is because you do so that you imagine He must need helps. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.”
“That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka – ‘Chukwu is Supreme.’”
“You said one interesting thing,” said Mr. Brown. “You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do His will.”
“But we must fear Him when we are not doing His will,” said Akunna. “And who is to tell His will? It is too great to be known.” (21.5-18)
This dialogue between spokesmen of two different belief systems proves very telling. We find that the Igbo hierarchy of gods is not so different from the ecclesiastical system of Christianity. Both belief systems have a supreme god to whom all prayers ultimately go.